Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

JPT Practice #1 Nonviolent Direct Action

My post on the developing Practices of Just Peacemaking proved too long for most readers. So, I will try briefer posts on each practice, inviting dialogue each time. None of the practices is expected to be a magic cure for war or violence, but they work together, reinforcing each other to prevent some wars, end others, and reduce violence in other places.

JPT practice # 1: Support nonviolent direct action.

First coming to global attention in the campaigns of Gandhi and King, this practice has spread globally in many contexts. This is not personal pacifism. The majority of participants in organized nonviolent direct action were not morally opposed to violence (as Gandhi and King were), but used it for pragmatic reasons. Nonviolent direct action (NVDA) is a method of struggle against a foe that has a greater amount of coercive power in traditional senses. It takes courage, discipline, and creativity. It doesn’t always work. However, its success rate is much higher than usually recognized.

In 1905, the original Russian revolution (before the 1917 Communist takeover) nonviolently overthrew the Czar. Gandhi studied this campaign from South Africa for examples. In 1923, a disarmed and impoverished Germany used nonviolent direct action to repel the French in the Ruhrkampf. During WWII, Danes and Bulgarians used NVDA to preotect their Jews from the Holocaust and, in the heart of Germany, German women married to Jewish men managed to free their husbands from the SS prison using nonviolent methods. (This is known to historians as “The White Rose campaign.”)

In 1944, El Salvador overthrew its military dictator nonviolently. In 1986, Philippine “people power” ousted the U.S. backed dictator, Marcos (a good friend of Ron and Nancy Reagan, who offered the Marcos’ asylum in Hawaii!) and ushered in a democracy–partly by subverting the loyalties of the military sent to crush them. In 1989, PERHAPS aided by economic strains on the USSR brought on by the arms race with the USA, but certainly the result of decades of planning by small citizens groups, Eastern Europe experienced 14 revolutions–only Romania’s turned violent. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin (no pacifist!) led a nonviolent resistance to a hardline attempted coup of the USSR–and, like with the Philippines, the nonviolent citizens were able to persuade the army sent to crush them to switch sides. In 2000, the student group Otpol (‘Struggle’) led a textbook nonviolent revolution against the brutal Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In 2003, Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” was nonviolent. Even the 1979 Iranian revolution from the Shah was nonviolent–although the subsequent capture of the U.S. embassy hostages and the Ayatollah’s regime which followed were brutal in the extreme.

Other nonviolent campaigns, however, in Burma, Tibet, and China were brutally repressed.
Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and injustifce and often produces healing without the resort to war. Boycotts, strikes, citizen embargoes, marches, mass civil disobedience, shunnings or (by contrast), actively fraternizing with enemy soldiers, accompaniment, are just some of the nearly 200 methods so far catalogued in the menu of interventions and defensive strategies being developed by nonviolent direct action campaigns. Support for such campaigns, studying when they work and when they fail and finding ways to make them stronger naturally reduces the numbers of wars and violent revolutions. Not enough study has yet been given to ways to make 3rd party nonviolent intervention work on more than a small scale.


August 29, 2006 - Posted by | just peacemaking, nonviolence


  1. This stuff really should be required reading in today’s world. So many people, no matter how many times you say otherwise, hear pacifists speak up against war and hear, “let’s do nothing.”

    Or they say that pacifism is a failure where it’s been tried, without knowing the facts.

    I sometimes wonder if there’s just some physical language barrier that prevents people from “hearing” information such as you’ve just outlined, even if they see it.

    I’ve been in dozens of conversations this last few years where I say, “Let’s stand up to oppression nonviolently,” and the other responds, “You’d have us do nothing?! I can’t believe how immoral you are!” and I say, “No, I’m talking about resisting the oppression non-violently,” and even list out what that might mean and they’ll say, “What? You’d advocate doing nothing!?” and on and on it goes and after repeating what I mean by nonviolent resistence and giving multiple examples and instances, they’ll still conclude with “What? You’d advocate doing nothing?!”

    What is this phenomena?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 31, 2006

  2. What is this phenomenon?

    Well, it could be cognitive dissonance. It could be the inability of a partisan mind to take in new info. The Washington Post had a recent story about a study done showing the SAME EXACT NEWS STORIES about the Middle East conflicts to pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians. The pro-Israelis saw all kinds of pro-Palestinian bias and missed any kind of counter-balance in the stories. Likewise vice versa.

    The study showed that strong partisanship actuall activated intense areas of the brain which acted like filters to screen out new info. Persons who were not particularly partisan on either side, or only mildly so, could find pros and cons in the stories that were missed by partisans.

    I wondered if this meant that we should have zero commitments if we expected to be open to truth and information integrity. But that can’t be right. The cure seems to be that one of our deep commitments must be to information integrity itself, to facing even our own loyalties and interests with self-criticism. That’s not easy–but it may be necessary not only for peacemaking, but also for any functioning democracy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 31, 2006

  3. […] JPT Practice # 1: Support Nonviolent Direct Action […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on the Practices of Just Peacemaking « Levellers | July 16, 2008

  4. […] And she did so peacefully, through prayer, non-violent protests, and subverting the loyalties of the soldiers Marcos sent to crush her. Michael Westmoreland-White cites her as an example of “just peacemaking,” in that she accomplished peace and democracy without the use of violence (see JPT Practice #1 Nonviolent Direct Action). […]

    Pingback by Corazon Aquino « James’ Ramblings | August 1, 2009

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